Ukrainian officials were at pains to reassure investors last week that no debt default was in the offing. But people familiar with the numbers will find it hard to believe them.
The government must find over $5.3 billion this year to repay maturing external debt, including $3 billion to the IMF and $2 billion to Russian state bank VTB. Bad enough but there is worse: Ukrainian companies and banks too have hefty debt maturities this year. Total external financing needs– corporate and sovereign – amount to $58 billion, analysts at Capital Economics calculate. That’s a third of Ukraine’s GDP and makes a default of some kind very likely. The following graphic is from Capital Economics.
In normal circumstances Ukraine — and Ukrainian companies — could have gone to market and borrowed the money. Quite a few developing countries such as Lithuania recently tapped markets, others including Jamaica plan to do so. Ukraine’s problem is its refusal to toe the IMF line. Agreeing to the IMF’s main demand to lift crippling gas subsidies would unlock a $15 billion loan programme, giving access to the loan cash as well as to global bond markets. But removing subsidies would be political suicide ahead of elections in October. And with the sovereign frozen out of bond markets, Ukrainian companies too will find it hard to raise cash.
So what options does Ukraine have? It could yet sell bonds on global markets. Or it could, as the finance minister sugggested last week, borrow at home in hard currency. But its tiny, illiquid local debt markets are unlikely to attract too many foreign investors. And yields will be ruinous. Ukraine’s 2015 dollar bond is trading with a yield of 9 percent and Ukrainian sovereign dollar debt carries a hefty 870 basis-point premium to U.S. Treasuries, among the highest in emerging markets. Analysts at Capital Economics write:
Issuing debt at interest rates of 8-10% is unsustainable for a country that even on the IMF’s optimistic projections is likely to record average nominal GDP growth (in US$) of only 4.5% a year over the next three years.